Wednesday, May 6, 2009

American Science Women - help a girl out!

I just got my first advice email, which I unfortunately can not answer 100%, so I need you readers to provide your opinions!

Here is the letter:

My 16-year-old daughter wants me to help her identify colleges with good science programs, but she is not interested in medical school. It changes day to day, but most recently, she informed me she wanted to be a science professor. Incredibly grateful she is not interested in following into my profession (law), I want to help her as much as I can.

As for her potential admission options, while there are no guarantees, with her current top 1% rank at a competitive suburban public high school, and pretty good SAT scores (including a 740 in math), she should be competitive for most colleges (ok, Cal Tech, would be tough, but Harvey Mudd, yes). I am thinking that the large universities with huge classes, would not be as good for her as smaller schools where she might actually get to know her professors, maybe get involved in their research projects etc.
Most importantly, what I hope to have her avoid is some place so unfriendly to women in the sciences, that she spends all her time and energy just fighting for a place at the table, instead of advancing her knowledge. (Please don't tell me there is no such place, please don't).
So, if you need a handy excuse to procrastinate, any thoughts and suggestions for schools, or just as to the process I should use to help her identify potential schools, would be much appreciated.
Awesome mom (thats my pseudo for her:)

My thoughts are obviously what an awesome mom for thinking about the pros & cons of a big school vs small, instead of the prestige associated with going to a big school. In regards to the actual school? Well, IMHO you're right on the money about the big name universities having huge classes with little interaction from the profs. I did my undergraduate studies and masters degree at Comprehensive University - which is the Canadian term for a university without professionals schools (ie medicine, law), but that still carries out research. I loved it there, I knew the department really well (I was involved in the departmental association) but also an emphasis is still put on practical learning. Science courses actually have labs associated with them, so students learn not just the theory of science but how to actually do it. This is in contrast to the LargeUniversity where I am doing my PhD. Here biology students NEVER enter a lab unless they are volunteering, doing co-op or an honors thesis.

In terms of female friendly? I think the best way to look at that is to look at the faculty and see how the distributions are. In the past my undergraduate department has had alot of issues with sexist or inappropriate behavior (which I was aware of only after I started working in the labs). Some will say that it was not surprising since most of the faculty were older, white males - which is not to say that just because the faculty is older white males it is unfriendly!
The department that I belonged to as a masters student had a pretty even split between young and old (a good sign that its attracting new scientists) as well as a large percentage of women on the tenure track. At the time I was there, it had not yet reached 50% but most of the faculty were very progressive and wanted as much diversity as possible. They truly worked together. The department head (an old white guy, that reminds me of a bug collector) was truly awesome, probably one of the staunchest advocate for women in science that I have met. As I am not in the states, I couldn't recommend any particular university or college, but I am sure my readers will! Hopefully the profs our there,DrdrA PLS, Isis, PiT and Arlenna are going to pipe up quick!


Anonymous said...

I would recommend the University of Rochester as one very scientist-friendly and small college. I'm a senior biochemistry major there, just about to graduate, and among my apartment mates, there are two physics and two biology (biochem and microbiology) majors, all female, and all of us are going on to PhD programs at very good universities. All four of us (and all of my female science friends as well) have had very good experiences here, with plenty of opportunities to get to know professors and get involved in research.

Arlenna said...

There are a bunch of really nice small universities in the Twin Cities in MN (St. Thomas, Augsburg, Hamline and Macalester) that have good programs and lots of research opportunities. There's also Carleton and St. Olaf--both in MN too. See, I'm a little MN-biased. All of those are the kind of place where a student can get really involved and have a lot of quality time with professors, where they care about you and have time to make sure you are doing as well as you can.

I'm afraid my expertise is very limited beyond that! I am currently at a big huge state R1 school, where lots of young women have wonderful experiences but you do have to take a lot of initiative upon yourself to find the way into those. They are there, lots of undergrad research opportunities and great mentors, but a girl's gotta go out asking to find them.

Arlenna said...

so does a boy, btw.

Hope said...

I wouldn’t rule out the big name schools. I did my undergrad in physics at Harvard. I know that a lot of people have major issues w/this school (including people without first-hand experience of the environment!), but for the most part, I found my profs very approachable. I was involved in research projects during my sophomore, junior, and senior years, which led to a publication. Opportunities for undergrads to do research were not hard to come by. My intro classes were large, but there were always smaller recitation sections (10-15 students) led by amazing TA’s, some of whom I remember to this day (10+ yrs). Places like Harvard are definitely not for wallflowers, though. If this girl doesn’t have a bit of a type-A, go-gettem personality, she might feel somewhat out of place. But notice that I only said “a bit” ;-) It’s wonderful to be at a school that’s good in so many different fields, not just in science, especially when one is so young and if one has multiple, diverse interests. I also liked being in Boston, with so many other schools around and the resources of a big city at my doorstep. And I’m sure that the name recognition played a part in helping me land a job when I graduated.

My advice to this girl would be to apply to a range of schools—some reaches, some safeties, etc.,—and then go visit the places where she gets in … with an open mind.

Hope said...

This is in contrast to the LargeUniversity where I am doing my PhD. Here biology students NEVER enter a lab unless they are volunteering, doing co-op or an honors thesis.

Wow … I am surprised. Is this in Canada? I think that in most US institutions, undergraduate science courses typically have lab requirements.

Anonymous said...

Have to recommend my alma mater--Oberlin College. They have a long history of educating women in science.

GirlPostdoc said...

Yes I completely agree about the Large Universities in Canada. I did my PhD at one and with all the budget cuts that are happening, the first things to go are the labs. One cell and molecular biology course that I TA'd went from having microscopy labs to tutorials with no hands on experience. Many students only get theory and like you said, hands on only if they volunteer. But even then, the competition is extreme to get volunteer positions in a lab.

I would suggest looking at some of the smaller universities where teaching is emphasized. There are three advantages to doing this: the first is the one-on-one attention that you will get from profs. Invaluable to getting a solid education.

The second, is hands on experience in lab or field. Both in class experience and it's easier to get research experience. Research experience means possible publications. Publications means grants.

The third is that, at least in Canada, there are quotas on getting NSERCs for each university. So if you go to a smaller one, there is less competition for NSERC graduate funding.

As for schools in the USA, look at the Pacific Midwest, they have some really awesome faculty yet the programmes are small.

Professor in Training said...

I can't be of much help I'm afraid as my only experiences in the US have been in big R1 schools and before my move to Really Big U I'd had no contact with any undergrad programs. At this early stage, I think it's important that the student keep her school and career options open as she's only 16 and will likely change her mind several times between now and when she needs to declare her undergrad major.

Anonymous said...

I received my bachelor's degree from a small liberal arts college on the east coast, and just completed my PhD at the largest undergraduate institution in the US. I had a wonderful experience as a undergrad where I really got to know my professors (in all disciplines) and never felt like I was just a number. I know that it was these experiences and connections that helped me to get through graduate school. As a TA in graduate school, I was appalled by the lack of time and effort that professors spend on their undergraduate courses. The underlying sentiment that is sent from the administration to the faculty is that research is 90% and if you have some extra time for teaching then great. The place is like a degree factory turning out students without regard for their knowledge gains or preparedness for the working world. In summary, I will not be sending my childrent to large state universities! Liberal arts colleges are the place to go for undergraduate degrees.

Eugenie said...

I'm at a SLAC in the biological sciences. It's a small public university (its dirt cheap to attend out of state and instate). It's become really competitive lately (I've heard many stories of students being rejected by my school and accepted at ivys).

The bio dep. is strong (for reference, we have high 90's percent acceptance rate into professional schools like med,vet, dental etc). There are research opportunities (like working on a cross-displinary project with the biology and physics departments. Apparently we're only one of a handful of schools that lets undergrads work with a proton accelerator- for cancer research...).

Class sizes are small, our largest intro-level course is approx. 130 students.

Beyond academics, the student body here is awesome- lots of good, honest people.

Definitely look into SLACs- you won't be lost in the crowd.

Tina said...

It is so hard to say without knowing the individual; it really varies. But, I have to agree with Eugenie; a SLAC can be good for science and for mentoring talented undergrads in general. I would suggest looking at acceptance rates into grad schools, and at research opportunities for undergrads; if those two things are good, then it will be a good choice. I've seen women from all sorts of backgrounds get in to top rated and/or Ivy League PhD programs; it all depends on how well you do where you are.

Also, my one comment is that in my experience the undergrad level is much more female friendly; even grad school can be female friendly; And I've been at both ends; small women's college for my BA; large 'old boy's club' research university for PhD. It is only when trying to make a career as a PhD scientist that it becomes less so.

Hope said...

This post
from (astro)physicist Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance offers some good advice on this topic. There are also views from some 50 or so commenters who chimed in with varied stories and opinions.

Zuska said...

SLACs are great places for nurturing women scientists. Oberlin would be awesome, so would Bryn Mawr; other less famous names would be good too. I mention Bryn Mawr because women's colleges are good at producing confident well-educated women who go on to do well in graduate school, and a disproportionate percentage of their undergrads do go on to grad school in science. Smith College has a truly innovative engineering program.